‘POINTS of VIEW’ is a WestVirginiaVille series featuring commentary and observations on essential matters in the public eye. In the video and text below, educator and humanitarian Dr. Gregg Suzanne Ferguson of Charleston WV, delivers a forceful letter to fellow educators on the significance of renaming schools still bearing the names of Confederate icons. | WestVirginiaVille Producer/Videographer Bobby Lee Messer filmed Ferguson in our Huntington studio at the PeaceTree Center. Stay tuned for an upcoming studio discussion with her by subscribing to: westvirginiaville.substack.com
Dr. Gregg Suzanne Ferguson | July 3.2020
You all remember how our teacher preparation addressed ‘unconscious bias‘ in almost every aspect of education? You know, we became self-aware, we took implicit bias tests. We ferreted out bias in teaching and testing. We worked on that for several decades as a common goal. Well, there was a glaring oversight, something that’s hiding in plain sight.
The school name.
Research shows that the school name, as cultural symbolism, often sets the tone for school culture and ideology, as it should. So, I must point out that for blacks teaching and learning in schools still named for white supremacists, like Confederate heroes, those names often illustrate distortions of Southern heritage, which are conflated with local governance and policy, and condemns us to remember oppression on a daily basis.
As a black educator serving a southern school district, I cannot overlook that.
I faced this trial going to work every day, at schools named after Confederate heroes like Stonewall Jackson Middle School, which rests in the heart of the black community in my state’s capital. Every time I enter the school, I glance throughout the halls for artifacts of the namesake or why the school is named after him. Anything about his claim to fame. And I see nothing that would explain to the community why he is so important.
Zora Neale Neale Hurston once said: “If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
That absence, although conspicuous, is ironically a relief to me.
Because seeing memorabilia, intentionally dredged up from some Confederate vault, would not allow me to defend my neutral colleagues as too busy too notice or too blind to see.
But I realize neither of them might be true.
I realize you may be actually confused about whether blacks are offended or feel pain from reminders of that dark period. Zora Neale Neale Hurston once said: “If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” So, I will clarify that we are offended. We are in pain.
And we are exhausted.
We are tired of taking deep breaths as we move through the halls, pretending we’re consoled by creative bulletin boards capturing brilliant work. We’re tired of plugging our ears at sporting events, as they announce our students’ victories with: ‘Stonewall Jackson wins again!’
And we’re tired of sucking our teeth at the marquee’s declaration of respect and responsibility. Raising the question: Respect for whom? And responsibility for what?
As refuge, I climb to my perch of objectivity, wondering: Would Jackson have supported the forced integration of his namesake school almost a century later in 1954? Well, those few blacks who dodged the racial hostilities in 1954 now have become 51% of the school’s enrollment. And Confederates would not have likely been advocates for their education.
We’re tired of plugging our ears at sporting events, as they announce our students’ victories with: ‘Stonewall Jackson wins again!’
Sometimes though, I’m shaken down from my perch of objectivity. Like when a black student athlete showed me his football sweatshirt. It was fashionable in red and gray, the school colors. The back featured a high and impenetrable stone wall, which was a nickname adopted by some of the high school’s black radicals in the 1970s, who tired of having the Confederate favorite “Dixie” played at every event.
But on the front, the general was outfitted in a gray-metal uniform, his head topped with a hearty style hat, on which was embroidered the Confederate sword emblem. And staring down, from below, were the fierce eyes, the brown skin and coiled locks of a … black man.
My student’s proud smile shook me down from my perch. And I cried.
I cry for him. And teams of black athletes, cheerleaders, and scholars, who unwittingly uphold the honor of a rebel who killed to keep their kin shackled. And whose devotees, even after defeat of his vile cause, forced them to sanctify his name with their talents.
I cry not only for their daily humiliation. But scores of black educators—at great time and expense—also have had to lend their talents to uphold the name of the enemy.
So, more sadly, we’ve had to witness how white supremacy continues to raise its head with heinous massacres and lethality in our systems of law and politics.
As black educators, we cannot ignore that this inglorious resurrection is awaited with each morning bell, at almost 200 American schools named after white supremacists or Confederates. This honor—through a campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1940s—was meant to control the Civil War narrative as a ‘Lost Cause,’ anchor the rebels in public spaces, and resist the Civil Rights movement.
And while many black educators are gracious enough to understand that the four years of the Civil War was trauma for white culture, the hashtag #HeritageNotHate explanation fails to recognize or compare to the trauma which was suffered under the Southern heritage by millions of enslaved Africans—which has lasted more than four centuries.
Hundreds of thousands of public school students, tens of thousands who are black, are forced to affiliate with racists’ names on their diplomas, uniforms, and trophies.
We feel these Confederate names are a trifecta for white supremacy. Where they: 1) Amplify racial inequities in society. Where they: 2) Amplify the academic achievement gaps in black and Latino populations. And were they: 3) Amplify the oblivion of white privilege emanating from our professional colleagues in educational leadership, especially as public schools become more diverse.
So, what is more infuriating is to consider that you all are unaware. We often talk about racial ‘micro-aggressions.’ You know, those unintentional slights that we suffer in isolation. But this is much more.
To us, a deliberate mockery is encoded by those names, which is more than a hapless effrontery. It reflects the larger systemic apathy to the life-and-death struggles of blacks in this society. Struggles which are the center of the 21st century’s revival of black national and global consciousness, fighting to end police brutality, the prison-industrial complex, including the school-to-prison pipeline, and educational inequities.
Public schools named after white supremacists confirms to black Americans that black lives—will—never—matter.
Your silence is not an option.
Hundreds of thousands of public school students, tens of thousands who are black, are forced to affiliate with racists’ names on their diplomas, uniforms, and trophies. Through interviews, black educators voiced their disgust that their talents are linked with Confederates on awards, credentials, and research.
Schools named for white supremacists and Confederates are symbolic violence. They perpetuate systemic racism and condone the unconscionable ideology which continues to fight to sustain our bondage.
We have fought back in local battlefields with varying degrees of success. Many districts are mired in their own versions of nostalgia. And that has us always jeopardizing our jobs and even our physical welfare. We think a more effective strategy is through federal EEOC law. Using research findings that these names have disparate psychological and emotional effects on black educators and their students.
We could also use the precedent of Brown vs. Board of Education 1954, where the Supreme Court agreed upon the criteria by which a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protections clause is based.
One—there has to be racist intent. And we can identify that in the United Daughters of Confederacy movement.
And two—the names have painful and humiliating effects on blacks and students.
So, in this day and age, I’m confident that you will join us, as educators and leaders, in our responsibility to give our students the most respectful environment possible.
Elie Weisel said “Indifference only helps the oppressor.” Martin Luther King said it wasn’t the voices of his enemies that he would remember, “but the silence of his friends.”
Your silence is not an option.
So, I’m asking you to stand with your black colleagues, to push this nation toward a more perfect union and not shackle us and our future to an imperfect past.
Your black educator colleague.
Dr. Gregg Suzanne Ferguson has spent 20 years in education as a counselor and teacher. She is contributing to Just Names campaigns with the Virginia NAACP and the Washington Lawyers Committee of Civil Rights and Public Policy, working nationally against discrimination. In West Virginia, she has been Education Faculty and Program Leader for Youth Development at West Virginia State University; Diversity Specialist at WVU; K-12 Counselor on Charleston, WV’s Westside; and Arts in Education Coordinator at the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. She is the founder of Mothers of Diversity America, a social justice think tank; and Urbalachian, empowering youth in business. She holds a BA in the History of Art and Architecture from Harvard University, as well as an MA in School Counseling and EdD in Leadership Studies from Marshall University, which she devotes to analyzing issues of social justice/educational environments for diverse populations.
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